Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 42 Target Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Teresa Earnhardt
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie
Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 8th (2009)
Hometown: Bogota, Colombia
Born: September 20, 1975
After making a surprising leap into the ranks of the Chase in 2009, Juan Pablo Montoya and the No. 42 team had targeted another bid in 2010, but came up far short of that goal despite a career year from teammate Jamie McMurray. How did the world’s fastest Colombian win last year’s Fallback 500? One quick glance at the stat sheet gives an easy answer. In ’09, Montoya was running at the end of all 36 races. Last year, he failed to finish eight. So why the big difference? Bad luck? Faulty equipment? Over-aggression? Or is Montoya still feeling growing pains adjusting to stock car racing?
The first two are racing obstacles any driver has to deal with, so that doesn’t set Montoya apart. His talent is undeniable; the former open-wheel veteran acclimated himself to big, beefy stock cars sooner than most thought he would as evidenced by his two wins and five poles in his relatively brief career. So that leaves over-aggression as the culprit in the decline.
At times, Montoya’s emotions continue to cause distractions, and he doesn’t act in his best interests on the track and off it when dealing with his fellow Sprint Cup drivers.
One in particular is his teammate, McMurray. The two have a history, stemming from an incident at Bristol a couple years back that makes them NASCAR’s version of The Odd Couple. Things got so bad at Las Vegas in late February after McMurray caused both of them to wreck that Montoya’s wife tweeted in Spanish that McMurray was driving like a giant chicken. But like it or not, they have to find a way to co-exist, as each one is expected to stay over the long term.
McMurray is not the only driver on Montoya’s “hit list,” either. There was an on-track brouhaha with Mark Martin at Chicago, where Montoya offered to give Martin driving lessons. And there was the ugly season-finale when he made contact with Joey Logano. That ended with Montoya getting wrecked under caution in a burst of retaliation. Of course, when you talk to the man he’ll often say none of those incidents was his fault. But bottom line: A driver with a “take no prisoners” attitude has been taking himself out all too often in the process.
“(In 2009), we made the Chase,” he said last October. “This year, we had a lot of wrecks. I think we had the speed to make it, but we didn’t and it’s a bit of a shame. It is what it is.”
The problem with those comments is there’s seemingly no initiative on Montoya’s part to change either his style of driving or his attitude. It’s a worst-case scenario for a team that needs its driver to recognize mistakes — the ugly truth that with eight, nine, 10 wrecks per season, you can’t be the innocent victim in every one.
Montoya’s poor performance is even more shocking when you consider how well he qualifies. An 11.6-average start trailed only Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch in 2010. The No. 42 car once qualified eighth or better in 11 consecutive races, but in that same stretch, finished only two of those in a higher spot — once in winning at Watkins Glen, the other a seventh-place finish after starting eighth at Bristol.
On the plus side, the team enjoys stability from Chevrolet, spurning Ford for 2011, while crew chief Brian Pattie leads a talented returning group of over-the-wall veterans. And just 35, Montoya should be at, or slowly reaching, his prime.
Going forward, the big question seems to be whether Montoya can let his racing do the talking, not his mouth or emotions. Wrecked racecars and tirades certainly aren’t going to put points on the stat sheet, after all. How he handles the adversity will be a gauge on whether or not 2009’s Chase appearance was a sign of things to come or simply a flash in the pan.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Montoya is as highly regarded for his talent — no, his brilliance — in NASCAR as he was in Indy cars and Formula One. But the results haven’t been there. “No one has bad luck all year,” says a crew chief. “It all evens out, but not for Juan Pablo. He won a race, but it was on a road course and that’s where he’s supposed to win. His talent is undeniable, but I’m not sure his judgment has improved in four years. A stock car racer has to learn how to pick his spots, and I’m not sure Montoya ever will.”
Another says, “God, I could watch that guy race all day every week. I can’t tell you why he doesn’t win more. He’s not your typical road racer come to NASCAR. He’s got the skill to win at any track.”
Looking at Checkers: The roadies, of course.
Pretty Solid Pick: JPM has gotten pretty good at playing chess on the plate tracks.
Good Sleeper Pick: Atlanta, where that Earnhardt-Childress horsepower pays dividends.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Vegas, one of only two tracks (Homestead being the other) where Montoya has not notched a top 10.
Insider Tip: After two near misses, he’s going to get a Brickyard trophy soon.
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 14
Laps Led: 411
Laps Completed: 10,217
Lead Lap Finishes: 22
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 11.6
Average Finish: 18.0
After First 26 Races: 16th
Final Points Standing: 17th
Driver Rating: 90.9 (11th)